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Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

The Natal Landscape of the Buddha, Phase I: Lumbini

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.

Background

The site of Lumbini, located in Rupandehi District of Nepal, is recognised as the birthplace of the historical Buddha. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and has seen an ever increasing rise in investment and visitor numbers since. In 2009 UNESCO and the Government of Nepal recognised that the World Heritage Site of Lumbini faced a number of challenges ranging from the deteriorating condition of the Asokan Pillar and archaeological monuments contained within the new temple, to the inadequately understood and mapped archaeological remains both within the World Heritage Property and adjacent buffer zone. Furthermore, there was a need to identify the subsurface archaeological deposits so that facilities for pilgrims and tourists could be installed without damaging valuable archaeology. 

As a result, a project entitled Strengthening the Conservation and Management of Lumbini; the Birthplace of Lord Buddha was established and funded through the Japanese Funds-in-Trust to UNESCO (JFiT). This project brought together archaeologists, conservators, site planners and management teams to look at how to protect and improve the management of Lumbini in light of future developments. The three year project (2011-2014) was led by Professor Yukio Nishamura of Tokyo University, and Professor Robin Coningham was invited to lead the archaeological component of the project on account of his knowledge of Buddhist archaeology and his 15 year experience of working in Nepal.

Funding

The project is funded by the following grants.

  • Identifying, Evaluating And Interpreting The Physical Signature Of Lumbini And Associated Sites (£57205.87 from UNESCO)
  • Lumbini: Reinvestigating The Archaeology Of The Birthplace Of Buddha (£15378.20 from National Geographic Society)
  • Strengthening Conservation And Management Of Lumbini: The Birthplace Of The Lord Buddha, World Heritage Property (£31990.00 from UNESCO)

Aims

Using a multidisciplinary approach, involving geophysical and auger survey, excavation and geoarchaeological analysis, the project aimed to shed light on the date of the Buddha's life and the nature of early Buddhist monuments. These investigations were supported by chronometric dating, including radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence dating of both soils and bricks. It utilised micromorphology and pollen cores in order to reconstruct the past landscape of the site, detailing the impact of human occupation on the environment, as well as how early inhabitants adapted to the landscape and climate around them. These components were bound together within GIS to provide an integrated tool to aid the long-term management of the site. In addition, detailed visitor and stakeholder surveys were undertaken in order to better understand the social and economic impact (both positive and negative) of heritage development on local communities.

 The key research questions were:

- What is the extent and nature of pre-Asokan activity at Lumbini, and how early was the initial occupation at the site? How does this reflect the wider debate surrounding the birth date of the Buddha.

- What role did the southwest "Village Mound" play in the past, and what was its relationship with the ritual core of Lumbini? Are there other areas within the vicinity of the Sacred Area that were important components of the Early Historic landscape?

- How has the landscape and environment in Lumbini changed since the site was occupied? Was any change deliberate manipulation by humans to alter the landscape for social, economic or religious purposes?

- How has the development of Lumbini as a major tourist and pilgrimage centre in the last 100 years impacted upon the archaeological signature of the site? What are the major challenges in ensuring the future preservation of buried material, and conservation of exposed material?

Findings

The team were successful in identifying evidence of the earliest Buddhist shrine in South Asia, dating to the middle of the sixth century BC – constructed during or shortly after the lifetime of the Buddha. This shrine was later elaborated by successive donors, as Lumbini grew from a small village to major pilgrimage centre. Evidence of this early village was found close to the modern Police Station, and dates to 1300BC – long before the birth of the Buddha. This trajectory of development of the site has now been documented and provides a unique insight into the social and cultural dynamics of early South Asia, as well as to debates surrounding the date of the Buddha’s birth.

A total of twenty-one archaeological trenches were excavated across five main areas – the Maya Devi Temple, the Sacred Garden, Village Mound, Nursery Well and Helipad. The excavations were conducted between 2011 and 2013, and were supported by geoarchaeological analysis through the extraction of soil samples using kubiena tins for thin section analysis, OSL samples and radiocarbon samples. The excavations were supported by auger-coring, mapping, geophysics, as well as visitor surveys.

The archaeological research has helped to revise the development plans for the site, reversing proposals that would have damaged some of the early archaeological sequences at the site. This input into the long-term management and preservation of the site is becoming increasingly important in light of the Asian Development Bank's ambition to develop Lumbini and the surrounding archaeological vestiges as a major tourist and pilgrimage destinations, with the number of visitors expected to increase rapidly in the future.

Youtube Video

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Strickland, K.M., Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Schmidt, A., Simpson, I.A., Kunwar, R.B., Tremblay, J., Manuel, M.J., Davis, C.E., Krishna Bahadur, K.C. & Bidari, B. (2016). Ancient Lumminigame: A Preliminary Report on Recent Archaeological Investigations at Lumbini’s Village Mound (Nepal). Ancient Nepal 190: 1-17.
  • Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P, Strickland, K.M., Davis, C.E., Manuel, M.J, Simpson, I.A., Gilliland, K., Tremblay, J., Kinnaird, T.C. & Sanderson, D.C.W (2013). The Earliest Buddhist Shrine: Excavating the Birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal). Antiquity 87(338): 1104-1123.
  • Coningham, R.A.E., Schmidt, A.R. & Strickland, K.M. (2011). A cultural and environmental monitoring of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lumbini, Nepal. Ancient Nepal 176: 1-8.
  • Coningham, R.A.E., Schmidt, A.R. & Strickland, K.M. (2011). A pilot geophysical and auger core evaluation within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lumbini, Nepal. Ancient Nepal 176: 9-24.
  • Schmidt, A.R., Coningham, R.A.E., Strickland, K.M. & Shoebridge, J.E. (2011). A pilot geophysical evaluation of the site of Ramagrama, Nepal. Ancient Nepal 177: 17-33.
  • Schmidt, A.R., Coningham, R.A.E., Strickland, K.M. & Shoebridge, J.E. (2011). A pilot geophysical evaluation of the site of Tilaurakot, Nepal. Ancient Nepal 177: 1-16.

Chapter in book

  • Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P. & Davis, C.E. (2015). Archaeological Evidence and the Historicity of the Buddha: Lumbini. In Vesak, Peace and Harmony: Thinking of Buddhist Heritage. Degalle, M. Nagananda International Buddhist University. 59-82.
  • Coningham, R.A.E. & Tremblay, J. (2013). Re-discovering Lumbini: Archaeology and Site Interpretation. In The Sacred Garden of Lumbini: Perceptions of Buddha's Birthplace. Weise, K. UNESCO. 61-95.

Staff

From the Department of Archaeology

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